One of the problems with getting academics to pay attention to authorship research is that it’s cross-disciplinary in ways that leave it outside the various boxes into which most universities put their studies. Who has credentials in not just English Lit but European Renaissance History, plus the Psychology of Creativity, plus Linguistics? The authorship question falls not just between two stools, but three or four. As a result, no one department is properly constituted to take the issue seriously.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect for all of these is the issue of falsification. Academics can handle the idea that anomalies arise naturally in history, literature and science, but only through simple misunderstandings or misreadings arising out of ignorance. They’re not trained to accept misunderstandings created on purpose. English Lit profs are puzzled and annoyed by the problems created by the massive use of falsification in the works of the time, but like dedicated field workers deluged by rain, rather than turn their attention to the rain, they do their best to minimize or even ignore it.
The hiding of Shakespeare’s identity by his publishers is only one small example of the kind of shape-shifting that was not only not all that unusual, it was the norm during the era we study. Most of the works that concern us were published with great care taken to blur some or all of the facts about when they were written, by whom, for what purpose, and if living persons were being addressed, who they were. This was true, not only of the small percentage of published works that fall into the category of imaginative literature (plays, love poems, bawdy tales, novellas) but things like pro or anti-Catholic screeds and dissident polemics like those of Martin-Marprelate, while contemporary historians dealt with problems by simply ignoring the more sensitive issues. All this to stay out of trouble with a government that was behaving more and more like Stalin’s or Hitler’s every day. Authors, publishers, printers, later editors, all had very good reasons for hiding some or all of the facts we seek. Everything we study has to be examined keeping in mind the possibility of this kind of dissimulation.
Again and again the question in hand takes us back to the fact that the community we are discussing was so very, very small. Where none of us today are likely to know personally the authors of the books that interest us, it was the opposite then. For us today, when reading a book, even one by an author whose name we know, the thought never enters our mind that the name is a phony or that the front material has been created to distract us from the true authorship.
For the small percentage of the Elizabethan community who were capable of reading these books back then, the possibility was always in mind that, no matter what the name on the title page, it was probably written by someone they knew, if not intimately, then by sight and/or reputation. In a city of under 200,000, a best seller was one that sold 1200 copies. Imagine a publisher today being satisfied with such a number. Where today we are awash with new titles every week in mega-bookstores with miles of shelves, there was a handful of bookstalls in St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, run mostly by the printers or their publishers, where weeks could go by without the appearance of something new.
Yet it’s the small size of this community that’s one of the major factors that makes it possible for us to sort out who wrote what and when. Once we’ve identified the writers and come to know their dates, situations, attitudes, fears, goals and perspectives, we’ve got some real controls. Styles are helpful, but only when we keep in mind that styles were changing rapidly throughout the entire period. Some of the writers we study delighted in imitating each other; some hoped to hide their authorship by creating several completely different styles; in some a later editor may have cut or added lines for any one of a dozen reasons. Stylistic crossovers may mean the same person wrote both works, but it may also mean that one was the other’s student at the time of writing, or that the two were working closely together at the time those works were being written.
In short, it’s absolutely necessary to know as much as possible about the men and women who were writing then, and their probable reasons for writing a particular work at a particular time. This is where the Stratfordian dating has caused so much trouble, offsetting the origin of Shakespeare’s works by as much as two decades. Shakespeare’s creation is so central to everything else, plays, poetry and novels, that the misdating of his works and misinterpretation of his purposes has created a mess that’s taken centuries just to begin to unravel.
We not only need to know the writers, we need to know how they related to each other. Since they (or their descendants) left us next to nothing by which to judge, we have to rely on what is revealed by their recorded actions and by clues in their works. We also need to know who were their enemies, who was out to stop them, whom they were praising or attacking in their works, whom they loved or hated and who loved or hated them.
To understand how individuals came to hate or depend on each other in that far off time it’s necessary to understand the social and political forces in play. Persons who shine as enemies in the histories were often in close contact with each other and so shared many moments of apparent good fellowship, a necessity for the dispense of business. Underlying animosities might come to the fore and should be kept in mind, but not everything can be explained by them. Shakespeare explores once such dichotomy in Coriolanus where the personal attraction between the Roman general and the Volscian Aufidius overwhelms their enmity as military adversaries. Shakespeare revels in the attraction of opposites. He is a past master of the romance of passion, something that thrives on opposition and the thirst for forbidden fruit.
On the level of the Court and the great gentry families, if you go back far enough, everyone was related to everyone else––so merely finding a family connection or an ancient family enmity says nothing about the potential relationship between two individuals. It can add weight to more solid evidence, but by itself it means very little. Brothers could become just as bitter enemies as two men who were taught to hate each others’ families in the nursery. Lawrence Stone identifies the innate enmities between eldest and younger brothers created by the system of primogeniture, where boys grew up knowing that the oldest brother would inherit most of the wealth and all the titles. He claims that the only family relationship that wasn’t stressed in any way was that of brother and sister (Family xx), but even they were often strangers to each other, having been separated early on and raised apart, sometimes at birth.
A number of forces worked to create enmities as well as alliances. Common interests, beliefs, educations, sexual biases and the simple emotional response of true friendship, could play as much of a role as could ambition, jealousy, envy, and paranoia which, given the rigid traditions that bound them all, were certainly rife at the time.